THE army of the Democratic Republic of Congo is not used to being
feted with palm leaves. It is also unaccustomed to winning. Its men are
better known for rape and pillage. But a snap offensive against rebels
in the eastern province of North Kivu which began on October 25th
brought a rare military victory.
“They fought well and they behaved well,” said a surprised observer
of the troops, who were welcomed by cheering crowds in Rutshuru, the
northernmost town they have reached. The government forces did not do it
alone. They were helped by a strengthened UN “intervention brigade” and
faced a demoralised foe. The M23 mutineers, named after the date of a
failed past peace accord in March 2009, were crippled by in-fighting and
in the past year by Rwanda’s reduction of the support it once gave.
The rebels, whom Rwanda still denies it backs, suffered heavy
casualties on October 26th-27th, trying to defend their frontline
positions north of the regional capital, Goma. Their leader, Sultani
Makenga, with several wounded men in tow, headed first for Bunagana, an
outpost that soon fell as well, and then possibly onwards to the nearby
border with Uganda. Hundreds more are reported to have defected.
The UN’s bullish new special envoy, Martin Kobler, said the M23,
which briefly occupied Goma last year, was finished as a military force.
“The era of cohabitation between armed groups and the UN is over,” he
told a local radio station.
Even supporters of the UN’s aggressive move from peacekeeping to
peace-enforcement in eastern Congo admit that a political deal will also
be required. Since 1994, repeated rebellions have flared among Congo’s
Tutsi minority, who complain of being marginalised by the government in
the capital, Kinshasa, and are often egged on by Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s
Tutsi president. Past peace deals have largely bought off rebel
commanders by giving them army posts while ignoring underlying
The M23 leaders have little incentive to cut a deal in talks which
have dragged on in neighbouring Uganda. Their rank and file may be
reintegrated into the army but Mr Makenga and others face possible
war-crimes charges. Rwanda, for its part, has sounded as bellicose as
ever. Its ambassador to the UN has been complaining of stray shells
landing within its borders and has warned that its forces could yet
invade its larger neighbour, as they have done before.
“Unless Rwanda gets on board with a definitive peace process, we’ll
be back here in a year’s time,” says Michael Deibert, author of a recent
book entitled “Congo: Between Hope and Despair”. But the lorry drivers
who ply the volcanic roads of eastern Congo know how much even a
temporary peace is worth: $300, the price they have been paying in tolls
at rebel roadblocks in the past year.